"Never stray from the path, never eat a windfall apple and never trust a man whose eyebrows meet."
Set within the dreams of an adolescent girl, Rosaleen (played by Sarah Patterson), The Company of Wolves is a dark and nightmarish trip through some of Angela Carter's fairytales, threaded through the main dream of Rosaleen and her Granny (Angela Lansbury). The various tales which appear throughout the film's puzzlebox structure are based on some of those which appeared in her short story collection entitled The Bloody Chamber (well worth a read). This includes the main narrative, based on The Company of Wolves short story which was adapted by Carter into a radio play and forms the basis of the film. All of the tales featured are centred around the image of the wolf, a beast which haunts the forest, sometimes hunting in packs, sometimes attacking on their own.
Fairytales have long held sway over the imaginations of their readers, remoulded and transformed depending upon the audience they are intended for. The tales of the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault and Hans Christian Andersen were originally cautionary morality tales, keeping children and women in line with their haunting messages of disfigurements, violence and loss. Since the Disney reworking of the fairytale into the 'Happily Ever Afters' we've come to be more familiar with, the genre has become something of a byword for light and fluffy tales of true love and rainbows and smiles.
The Bloody Chamber is a collection of tales that emulates the fairytale genre, though it has often been incorrectly described as subversive retellings of popular fairytales with a feminist twist. Whilst some of the stories are clearly based on existing fairytales, Carter's intention was 'not to do 'versions' or, as the American edition of the book said, horribly, 'adult' fairytales, but to extract the latent content from the traditional stories and to use it as the beginnings of new stories" (Carter, quoted in The Bloody Chamber Introduction). Carter's tales are filled with a macabre menace, focusing on the heroines and their sexuality and desires.
There are a few films in the 1980s that tap into this new, darker fantasy like Willow, Labyrinth or Legend. Particularly with Labyrinth and Legend, there is the latent sexual content throughout that threatens to derail their female protagonists. In The Company of Wolves, this undercurrent is carried across, much as it is in the original stories on which it is based. What connects the fairytales throughout the film is the idea of a loss of innocence, particularly at the point of burgeoning adolescence and sexuality. The various facets of this transitionary experience (the fear, the excitement, the danger) is encapsulated within the symbol of the wolf, a symbol which transforms itself within each story to represent something different for each of the stories' central female characters.
The nightmarish landscape is captured beautifully in the medieval forest in which much of the action is set. Branches loom over pathways, houses disappear into the trees themselves and a mist drifts across the sets. It makes for an imposing world, one in which threats can appear quickly and without warning. The production design captures that adroitly, as well as recreating the sort of villages, costumes and general rustic qualities that we expect from traditional fairytales. The colour palette builds into this; most hues are cold browns or dark greens with flashes of brilliant red, fitting in with the sexual symbolism of the stories.
Sex is everywhere in this film, overtly or otherwise, infiltrating every aspect of the unfolding narratives whether it's Rosaleen catching sight of her parents having sex in the dead of night just a few feet away from her or the sermon about the wolf lying with the lamb. The gift of the red shawl to Rosaleen is significant, situated just before she spies her parents and when she begins to pay attention to the village boy who desires her. Bringing forth the sexual undertones of the story's inspiration, Little Red Riding Hood, particularly in her relationship with the huntsman in this film, Jordan and Carter use it to symbolise Rosaleen's sexual awakening, culminating with her exceptionally creepy climactic encounter with the gentleman wolf.
As well as the constant foreboding atmosphere brought on by production design, the stories carry with them their own particular brand of horror. The story of the young bride and her travelling man groom is especially grotesque despite seeming fairly jolly at the start. Their marriage is a happy, pastoral affair that soon gives way to sadness when the groom disappears. However, after the bride's second marriage, her first husband returns and transforms himself into a wolf. The special effects here are fairly spectacular as well as horrific and whilst it may not be a lycanthropic transformation to rival An American Werewolf in London, it still cuts an impressively grotesque image.
The performances are routinely excellent across the board with key brief appearances from the likes of Stephen Rea and Terence Stamp (as the Devil no less). Particularly impressive is the young Sarah Patterson in the central role of Rosaleen. As the central thru-line for the stories, she is called upon to anchor the various stories as well as fill the role of the fairytale heroine. She does so well, offering a wide-eyed innocence to the proceedings. The character still falls into the trap that has befallen many a fairytale heroine in that she is quite a bland figure, despite Patterson's appeal.
The real star of the show though is Angela Lansbury's Granny, a mix of cuddly maternal figure and stern matriarch. She is given the most opportunity for comedy, booting a would-be admirer of Rosaleen up the backside and loudly voicing her disapproval. She also carries the right amount of menace when it comes to telling the nastier stories and offering warnings around sexual morality in amusing aphorisms. The film lifts whenever she is on screen, breaking the melancholy with a knowing nod and a cheeky wink.
Neil Jordan's direction allows all of this to shine throughout the film, no mean feat considering its fractured and layered structure and perfectly captures the dark atmosphere of Carter's tales. With the recent desire to revisit fairytales in films and make them more akin to their Grimm counterparts, it's refreshing to go back to one that succeeds in creating a deeply unsettling tale of female sexuality and those that threaten it.